The gold standard in ocean safety

Dr. Monty Downs

This is a term we frequently use in the medical field, and it refers to — as one example — the best single test that proves whether or not a patient is suffering from a certain mysterious condition or illness. Some of our tests give us a hint as to what is going on, then we zero in with ever-more expensive and definitive tests that give us even better clues, and finally we do a “gold standard” test and we get our answer. Sometimes you have to get this specialized test elsewhere, on O‘ahu or even on the Mainland.

In ocean safety circles, O‘ahu has been the gold standard, nationally and internationally, and we on Kaua‘i have turned to them many times over the last few decades, picking up from what they are doing in order to improve our own lifeguarding. The Jet Ski/rescue sled program came from them, and here on Kaua‘i this alone has saved many lives in remote areas around Kaua‘i.

“Mobility.” That is the new key word coming out of O‘ahu in lifeguarding. Jet Skis and ATVs have already done a lot to address this. The reason mobility is so important is that response time is so critical. If you get to a submerged victim within 5 minutes, the victim has an excellent chance for survival with full neurologic function. Every minute after that, the chances drop precipitously.

O‘ahu has continued to up the mobility ante. Yes, they still have 33 towers, the classic form of lifeguarding that we are all very familiar with. However, they also have, on any given day, 17 mobile units, patrolling the roadways and the beaches all around the island, with their assignments made both according to district, and also to seasonal and even daily ocean conditions.

Six of these units are trucks with Jet Skis on trailers. The rest are trucks with two lifeguards, along with rescue boards, rescue tubes, AED, oxygen, radios and all the other tools of the trade.

Unfortunately we can’t, on our rural county’s budget, come anywhere near matching O‘ahu’s numbers of either towers or mobile units. But we can learn from their philosophy of mobility, a philosophy based on addressing response times.

As I write this, the image of one beach is in my mind: Polihale. Response time there is over 20 minutes, at best. Any day when surf is up there, it is purely a matter of luck whether someone will drown. Just this last weekend one of our lifeguards was camping out with his family for the weekend. The surf was up, and on his “day off” he ended up pulling five people in to safety!

Yes, we have 14 rescue tubes along Polihale, and we have documented reports of these being used in critical situations. But even our most ardent rescue tube project volunteers know that having a lifeguard on duty or on patrol is exponentially safer than having a rescue tube station nearby.

I believe that continuing to increase our mobility will be the future for Kaua‘i’s ocean safety program, just as is the case on O‘ahu. I believe that one day there will be a truck with two lifeguards and an ATV at Polihale, roving around and keeping an eye out. And there will be a couple of other mobile units roving around Kaua‘i, trailering either a  Jet Ski or an ATV, in constant touch with dispatch regarding where best to station themselves.   

Prevention, education also key to ocean safety

I have to conclude this piece with a couple of short comments about the other huge key for ocean safety:  prevention, education. Again for emphasis: prevention, education. Much is being done on Kaua‘i in this regard, but more can always be done.

For a terrific example of a recent advancement, please check out the inside front and back covers of the attractive pamphlet-sized Kaua‘i Gold tourist publication that you see on racks around Kaua‘i.

And, of course, always check out our time-honored Daily Conditions report on  

Finally, mobility discussion aside, you can’t go wrong if you swim near a lifeguard. And if you choose not to, take a lot of time to educate yourself about rip currents, since (nationally) 85 percent of beach drownings are because of a rip current situation.

Kaua‘i, we’re doing better, we really are. Families are being spared. Thank all of you/us who work on our ocean safety challenge. 


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